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Reading Russell Annabell: The cure for the modern outdoor story

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BY MATT MILLER
When the modern sporting press has me down, I have a tried and true antidote: Read some Russell Annabel.
Recently, I paged through a popular national hunting magazine, and noticed an article that promised to share an author’s greatest hunting day. Ever.
I can perhaps be forgiven for not expecting what came next: The adventure began with our outdoor writing hero rising from bed and strolling to his laptop, where he dutifully checked his game cameras remotely to see which deer feeder he should choose.
As Dave Barry says, I swear I am not making this up.
The rest of the article details his intense excitement when his laptop revealed a huge trophy buck had visited his feeder earlier in the morning. The writer gushed and effused as to how this made his hunt more exciting. It ended with a plug for all serious deer hunters to have computer programs that sync with their game cameras.
Has it really come to this?
The joy of owning an overflowing library is that I can journey back in time, can be transported to that time when outdoor writing meant adventure and dreams.
I tossed the magazine aside and pulled a book of Russell Annabel stories off the shelf. As you prepare for the OWAA conference in Alaska, you might want to do the same.
Annabel wrote hundreds of outdoor stories from the 1940s through his death in 1979, mostly for Sports Afield. He told stories of adventure and mayhem, many involving his friend, Tex Cobb, as they hunted, fished, prospected and explored remote regions of Alaska and Mexico.
Annabel’s world was one populated by a mind-boggling assortment of crazed moose, man-eating bears and vengeful wolves. The animals he encountered often exhibited human traits, including excessive pride, intentional rudeness and just plain old nastiness. A rock slide awaited around every bend; a blizzard occurred at least once a week. Add up the various adventures and you might reasonably conclude that Annabel lived to be 250 years old.
And here I imagine many friends chiding my Annabel recommendation, particularly those of you with whom I have enjoyed discussions on Hemingway, Jim Harrison or other literary writers.
I’ll be honest: Annabel’s writing often is more pulp fiction that non-fiction. He clearly fails by any current standard of political or ecological correctness. Then again, it’s always a mistake to use the present to judge the past.
His stories have no value as how-to pieces, unless you happen to find yourself trapped under a log during a blizzard, your rifle ten feet away, as a rabid and hungry wolverine stalks you. In which case, working knowledge of Annabel would come in pretty handy.
No doubt, much of Annabel’s canon lies in the realm of fiction, or at least hyperbole.
Here’s the thing: The guy could tell a story. Reading of his adventures as a kid made me want to grab my BB gun and head outside. Reading him today still recalls nostalgia. And I still keep turning the pages.
His prose may indeed be purple at times, but it’s also descriptive. You can picture the Mexican canyon, you can feel the cold, feel the fear as the grizzly charges.
Reading a few stories by old Rusty drives home that point: Stories still matter.
That should be obvious to anyone in the outdoor communication business. Evidence suggests it’s not.
Too many magazine stories are really ad copy, filled with product placements seasoned with regrettable sentimentality. Annabel’s charging grizzlies may indeed live in the realm of tall tale. But claiming that shooting a deer over an automated corn feeder is some form of adventure — an adventure which mentions 25 products, each of which performs flawlessly — is a much uglier brand of lying.
“Stories” extolling computer-controlled game monitors, high-fenced shooting galleries and 900-yard “hunting” rifles are not attracting young hunters. The numbers don’t lie. Good stories — told or written, including the timeless tall tale — remain the foundation of outdoor sport. But still the advertising copy too often fills the pages.
Environmental organizations aren’t much better. Environmentalists speak in jargon, or ramble endlessly about Beltway politics, or engage in fear mongering. None of this is  particularly useful or interesting to the general public.
I recently attended a meeting in which a very intelligent environmental staffer said, “This movement doesn’t need writers, it needs promoters.”
Wrong. The movement, too, needs stories.
In my job with The Nature Conservancy, I’ve eschewed meetings and jargon in favor of getting in the field and collecting stories: The Colombian rancher who said the beautiful wide-open spaces and flocks of birds filling the sky sustained him through decades of unspeakable violence. The Idaho rancher who lassoed badgers for sport — and who also is putting more water in the river so salmon can spawn. The young man who began his career chopping fins off living sharks, who now is a dedicated marine conservationist.
These stories resonate with our members. In a field dominated by policy talk and jargon, people respond when they read stories.
OWAA is still a refuge for storytellers, a fact so apparent to me as I think about some of my recent reading: intelligent books by Joel Vance, Kevin Rhoades, E. Donnall Thomas Jr. and Eric Jay Dolin; honest and compelling magazine articles by the likes of Kirk Deeter and Tim Gallagher; and humorous newspaper tales by friends Mark Freeman and Brett Prettyman.
Stories still matter. And while the stories may look different than when Annabel was writing, his colorful stories of Alaska still provide a decent working blueprint for good storytelling. And they beat the hell out of deer hunting via bait-by-laptop. ♦
—OWAA board member Matt Miller is director of communications for The Nature Conservancy in Idaho. He is currently writing about Pacific island marine issues as part of a conservation fellowship. He is also editor of Backcountry Journal, a blogger at Idaho Nature Notes and Cool Green Science, and a freelance writer.
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